CEBU, Philippines – Fe (not her real name) goes weekly to the church to light a candle for her children. Every day, she prays. Fe is one of the millions who pay tribute to the Holy Child during the Fiesta Señor.
She was born in Zambales and moved to Cebu when she was 15. In 2003, she lost her husband. In 2016 she lost her home in a fire. And after that, all her children were killed, except for one.
“They weren’t bad kids,” she said. “They got into trouble when they were younger."
She worked in a factory packing office supplies. Almost all her earnings went to sending her children to school. But they were stubborn and ended up dropping out.
“They were sometimes lazy. Played around with women. But they did not deserve to die,” she said.
Her children were in their 20s when they were arrested and imprisoned in the early part of the decade.
When that happened, Fe's routine for years was to go to church, light a candle, and say a prayer for their release, before visiting them in jail.
Now, she prays that they just get into heaven.
Her children were among at least 445 reported unsolved killings in Cebu that year. Although authorities rarely link unsolved killings to the drug war, many of those killed either had criminal records or surrendered when Oplan Tokhang was launched in 2016.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” ex-Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña told Rappler in a conversation about the killings in Cebu some time before the end of his term.
This was coming from a mayor who was supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war when it began in 2016. Osmeña, himself, was once tagged in a Human Rights Watch report for allegedly being behind vigilante killings in Cebu in the early 2000s.
But this time it was different, Osmeña said. “It’s out of control.” He blamed the rise in the killings to President Duterte's assigning two favored cops to lead the drug war here.
Osmeña said in 2018 that the number of unsolved killings, where hundreds of victims were linked to the drug trade, increased during the watch of Brigadier General Debold Sinas as Central Visayas Regional Police Commander. In February, the Commission on Human Rights said Central Visayas had the 4th highest number of drug-linked killings in the country. (READ: Killings in Cebu rise as mayor, cops feud)
"It (rise in killings) definitely started when they came in the picture," Osmeña said. He was referring to Sinas and ex-Cebu City Police Office chief retired Colonel Royina Garma.
Sinas now heads the National Capitol Region Police Office, while Garma is the general manager for the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office.
When Garma was questioned about the rise in killings in 2018, she dismissed those concerns. “Only criminals have to be worried,” she said.
‘I know who killed my children’
The killing spree during the anti-illegal drugs campaign made Fe fear that her children would be killed by riding-in-tandem gunmen.
“Those who were reading about our story [in the news] don’t know what my children were really like,” she said. “This [the drug war] is not good. It made it possible for anyone to kill those like us,” she said.
When her children were released from prison, she had strict instructions to them.
“I told my children, do not go out because they could be killed by riding-in-tandem men,” she recalled warning her kids. They obeyed her, grateful that they were finally at home with their mother again.
The memory of that grim first weekend with them is still vivid in Fe's mind.
"They took selfies. They were even drinking alcohol. And for a moment, they were happy. But in the middle of the night, I heard loud bangs on our door, and men in blue shirts with guns burst into our house,” she said.
“He did not even wear a mask, I saw his face,” she said. They told her to get out. It was a police operation. Then, after she stepped outside her house, she heard at least 3 or 4 gunshots.
“Bang! Bang! Bang!” Fe said she heard from her house.
Then the door opened. The lifeless bodies of her kids were carried out and thrown into the back of the truck. “They were tossed into the truck like slaughtered pigs,” she said.
The raiders said they found drugs in the house. But Fe swore that there were no drugs inside the house before the police arrived.
Her remaining son was also arrested, but later released. He is now in hiding.
Every day, Fe misses her children.
“They were all affectionate to me,” she said. “I miss that the most.”
During the interview, Fe would look over her shoulder or speak in a low voice if another person was walking too near. She was concerned that the interview was too close to the site where her children were killed.
“I cannot even relax. They’re still watching me, I know it,” she said.
In her neighborhood, she said, she still sees the man who killed her children walking freely.
“I pray that justice will be served,” she said.
After her children died, she began selling food at a market to make ends meet. But the stall was torn down after local government units were ordered to clear road obstructions and were told they would be reviewed on their clearing operations.
Today, Fe has no livelihood.
But in the midst of tragedy, Fe said that her devotion to the Holy Child has not wavered.
The uncertainty is only in whether or not her children go to heaven. But if there is a God, Fe said, "I have no doubt."
God is in the small details, Fe explains.
When one of her sons figured in a fight and got stabbed, he survived. For Fe, that was God's will.
The financial support they received for his medical expenses, that was also God.
She continues to go to the Church to light a candle for her children.
And like many other Cebuanos, Fe was among the millions walking, holding their Santo Niño tightly, during the Fiesta Señor. – Rappler.com
(Writer's note: The name of the subject has been changed and some details and circumstances of the alleged killing had been omitted after verifying this case through media reports and records of non-governmental organizations. All quotes from the subject were translated Visayan to English.)